Alberta Liberals may need an identity crisis

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Apparently it wasn't time.

Despite the Alberta Liberal Party slogan's assurances to the contrary, Albertans didn't think that the Liberals were ready to govern and they didn't trust leader Kevin Taft, according to polls leading up to the election. The polls didn't lie; the 2008 election was a massive failure for the Liberals. With so much discontent supposedly brewing in the province, the consensus expert opinion had the Liberals gaining seats at the expense of the PCs. The opposite happened. The Liberals failed to gain seats, they failed to capitalize on any discontent and they failed to mobilize Albertans towards their alternative. Something is wrong with the Liberals and something needs to be changed.

Experts, such as Mount Royal College political scientist Duane Bratt, have rightly suggested that the something that needs fixing for the Liberals is their name. Bratt described the Liberal brand as "toxic" to CBC interviewers in their online election wrap-up segment. The Liberals have been trying to distance themselves from the federal Liberal party, mostly by adding the Alberta prefix to their official party title and sending out faxes to media outlets emphasizing their official ALP name. But this isn't enough. By habit, most people drop the Alberta part of the name when talking or referencing them in the media and regardless of what's in front of the Liberal title, as long as it's part of the party name, it will bring to mind the federal Liberals, Pierre Trudeau and the much-hated National Energy Program.

This election, as expected, the PCs swept the rural seats, but unexpectedly, the Liberals continued to lose ground in the popular vote outside of Calgary and Edmonton. In the 2001 election, outside of Alberta's two biggest cities, the Liberals picked up 22.4 per cent of the popular vote, 20 per cent in 2004 and 16.6 per cent in 2008. When you remove Red Deer and Lethbridge, where the Liberals have traction, the numbers are even bleaker. In 2001, the Liberals gained 20.2 per cent of the popular vote outside of Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer and Lethbridge, in 2004, 18.0 per cent and in 2008, a dismal 14.4 per cent. In rural areas, the Liberal brand name is becoming less palatable over time.

In this election, the cities presented a different situation for Liberal support. Calgary-Varsity Liberal MLA Harry Chase admitted that he had problems with people separating the provincial and federal Liberals in the lead-up to this year's election that when he first started campaigning during the 2001 election. Chase finished second in 2001 with 28.6 per cent of the vote. Chase noted though, that as he continued campaigning in the riding, people became more receptive. He was finally elected in 2004 with 44.6 per cent of the vote and this election, Chase was re-elected with 47.3 per cent of the vote.

But even in urban areas such as Edmonton, where the Liberals had received the largest share of the popular vote in 2004, they faced hostility and negative comparisons to the federal Liberals. In an anecdote described in a Sun., Mar. 2 Calgary Herald article, Taft was verbally confronted by a senior citizen during a tour as she compared the ALP to the federal Liberals and wouldn't listen to Taft as he tried to separate the two parties.

Despite success in 2004 in the major cities for the Liberals, 2008 proved that Calgary and Edmonton aren't entirely warming to the partying. The popular vote in the two cities fluctuated. In 2001, the Liberals picked up 31.1 per cent of the popular vote, in 2004, 36.2 per cent and in 2008, 33.6 per cent. The Liberals lost eight seats in and around Edmonton in 2008's election and gained one in Calgary.

The Liberals need to make a change. The rural vote is dipping, they lost their hold on their urban fortress of Edmonton and people still negatively associate them with the federal Liberals, despite over 25 years of history passing between the NEP and this election. The Liberal name remains the albatross around their neck. For the Alberta Liberal Party, though a name change would be drastic, it is likely the best option they have.